The Future of Hezbollah
Attacks Could Erode Faction's Support
Friday, July 14, 2006
BEIRUT, July 13 -- The radical Shiite movement Hezbollah and its leader, Hasan Nasrallah, hold an effective veto in Lebanese politics, and the group's military prowess has heartened its supporters at home and abroad in the Arab world. But that same force of arms has begun to endanger Hezbollah's long-term standing in a country where critics accuse it of dragging Lebanon into an unwinnable conflict the government neither chose nor wants to fight.
"To a certain Arab audience and Arab elite, Nasrallah is a champion, but the price is high," said Walid Jumblatt, a member of parliament and leader of Lebanon's Druze community. "We are paying a high price."
The conflict will likely prove a turning point in the history of the movement, which was created with Iranian patronage in the wake of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. It has since evolved from a terrorist organization blamed for two attacks on the U.S. Embassy and the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, which killed 241 Marines, into a sprawling movement with a member and supporter in Lebanon's cabinet, a militia that effectively controls southern Lebanon, and an infrastructure that delivers welfare to its Shiite constituency, Lebanon's largest community.
But in the wake of Syria's withdrawal of its troops from Lebanon in 2005, the disarmament of Hezbollah has emerged as one of the foremost issues in Lebanese politics. Since the fighting with Israel started Wednesday, calls for Hezbollah to relinquish its weapons have gathered urgency. The violence began when Hezbollah fighters captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border incursion, followed by an Israeli attack on roads, bridges, power stations and airports.
Lebanese critics as well as allies of Hezbollah insist that the Israeli response was disproportionate. But at the same time, in meetings Thursday, Lebanese officials began to lay the groundwork for an extension of government control to southern Lebanon. Hezbollah largely controls southern Lebanon, where it has built up a network of schools, hospitals and charities.
"To declare war and to make military action must be a decision made by the state and not by a party," said Nabil de Freige, a parliament member. He belongs to the bloc headed by Saad Hariri, whose father, Rafiq, a former prime minister and wealthy businessman, was assassinated in 2005, setting off a sequence of events that forced the Syrian withdrawal. "It's a very simple equation: You have to be a state."
After a cabinet meeting Thursday, the government said it had a right and duty to extend its control over all Lebanese territory. Interior Minister Ahmed Fatfat said the statement marked a step toward the government reasserting itself.
Other government officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, went further, calling it a first move in possibly sending the Lebanese army to the border, a U.N.-endorsed proposal that Hezbollah has rejected. The officials described the meeting as stormy and contentious but said both sides -- Hezbollah and its government critics -- were especially wary of public divisions at a time of crisis.
"It is becoming very clear that the state alone must bear responsibility for the country's foreign policy," said Samir Franjieh, a parliament member who is close to the Hariri bloc. "But our problem now is that Israel is taking things so far that if there is no help from the international community, the situation could get out of hand."
The fate of Hezbollah is at the center of Lebanon's sectarian complexity, now more pronounced than perhaps at any time since the 1975-90 civil war. Hezbollah's future is also tied up in regional politics dominated by Syria, Iran and Israel.
Along with Lebanon's president, Emile Lahoud, Hezbollah remains one of Syria's main allies in Lebanon. The governments of Syria and Iran provide Hezbollah with funding and arms, although the countries' influence is a matter of debate. Analysts here say Iranian influence has become ascendant following the Syrian pullout, though foreign policy in the two countries has so far largely overlapped. The United States renewed its call Thursday for those countries to intervene to get the two Israeli soldiers released.
"It's really time for everybody to acknowledge that these two states do have some measure of control over Hezbollah," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters in Washington. "And the international community has called upon them to exercise that control, to have these two individuals released."